The chanting of the lions

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After the rough crossing of the Namib, I took a week off in Windhoek to recover my strength, to eat very well, to braai (barbacue) every night with very good friends, and most importantly, before setting off again, begin the end of the process of one of the most complicated endeavors to be able to continue with this adventure across the western half of Africa: getting the Angolan visa. Without much rush, I spent the time necessary to recover before embarking on the brutal road ahead, a route that would be much more demanding than the one I had already done to get here.

Leaving Windhoek was harder than I imagined. To be a capital, which actually looks more like a large town in this empty country rather than a big city, truck traffic along the main national highway was more than expected. After having experienced so much beauty being completely alone, returning to a road with some traffic is hard to adapt to. The B1 is the backbone of the country and one of the only paved roads, but it was that same sealed road what allowed me to cycle as fast as possible to escape from it. By the end of a long, 180 km day, I was already back on a rugged gravel road enjoying a huge ball of fire falling over the desert. A desert that no longer had the same characteristics of the Namib. I was on my way to the remote desolate lands of Damaraland and Kaokoland, two names that echoed within me with as much fascination as with a considerable amount of fear.

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As soon as I passed the iconic mountain of Spitzkope, still along the circuit that some tourists drive in 4x4's, I began to find myself alone again for most of the day, along roads where the distances between points of water supply were getting longer and longer. This would be the biggest problem I would face in the coming days when I started having to carry between 8 and 10 liters of water to make sure I would not end up in serious trouble in the middle of nowhere. The roads of this region are very well graded, but still, I find usually myself again and again stuck in the sand. I left Windhoek with about 8 kg of food for all these days, and adding about 10 liters of water, the bike buries itself easily on any surface that is not solid enough, that's why it takes me several hours to reach a point where to find settlements with people.

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Finding a settlement allows me to refill my water bottles, but it also inevitably leads me to talk about what I do not want to even think about: I am about to enter a region where not only there are no people for long stretches but there are wild animals everywhere. Time and time again, seeing me on the bicycle, the people of the villages ask me if I am aware that this region is full of lions and elephants. I know, I'm not an improviser, but I have informed myself as much as possible and I have decided to take the risk. I have talked with people with a lot of experience and I have an idea about how to act in case I come across them. Even though, due to the influence of local people's warnings, every day, when the sun begins to fall at about 4 pm, a strange sensation of fear and adrenaline starts to run through my veins. Already in Damaraland, I knew that wherever I would camp, I would be exposed to the animals, even though so far I have not seen much more than harmless springboks.

The absolute darkness of the Namib's night is now left behind; on this stretch, the largest moons I have ever seen in my life, illuminated the solitude of my nights with the clarity of a theater reflector. I do not know what would actually be better, if having this much light to allow me to see any animal coming towards my tent from a distance, or if I would be better off seeing absolutely nothing around me. Ultimately, if some wild animal suddenly appeared nearby, I do not think rushing into my tent quickly would have done much for my so obvious vulnerability. Parallel to the state of alertness while I am out cooking my dinner, I continue to enjoy this pure connection with nature, where there is no one around me in perhaps hundreds of miles. I live moments of deep peace, a serenity that in very few places in the world I can remember having experienced.

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Too much for a single day

I moved slowly but steadily through the days at a rate of 60-70 km per day. From 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. as the sun began to fade in this mild Namibian winter of daily average temperatures of 24 C and nights of 3 C. As I drew closer to the border with Kaokoland, I tried to remain calm without thinking to much at a potential encounter with the beasts. But it was at that point, several miles before Palmwag, in the middle of the day, along a lonely road among the bushes of a mountainous desert, where a pick-up coming in the opposite direction stopped and its driver asked me to stop. The driver, very kind, got out of the vehicle and, after introducing each other and maintaining a relaxed dialogue, he said to me:

 - Well, look Nico ... I work for the conservation of this region, and I must tell you that right on this very road that you are going, now right ahead, there are no less than 6 to 8 active lions in the vicinity. That is why I am here because due to the recent drought they are now approaching these roads, they are hungry and they are causing stupor in the surrounding settlements. Yesterday they have eaten 6 goats, 1 cow and 1 giraffe.
   
 With a twitching stomach, I asked him how he saw my situation. He told me that I should continue very carefuly and he gave me the same precautions that I already knew by heart in case of an imminent encounter. After his departure, I was alone again, totally alone and for the first time, I started pedaling in total fear, because I knew that now it was real, I was not alone anymore. It was the middle of the day, lions do not usually hunt at this time, so I needed to stay calm and try to reach the next settlement. At times, I was obsessed with trying to see through the bushes in the immensity, as if trying to predict a situation, but on the other I did not want to see anything and kept on moving forward with a stiffened neck and wrecking nerves, because the mere fact of thinking of a lion crossing my path all my muscles would faint. I could not cycle fast, it was impossible, the large loose gravel would not allow it, and every crossing of a dred river was a swamp of sand where I had to get off and push. And there was not one; there were many, and that is where lions usually go to rest during the day.

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At that moment I kept telling myself that I did not want to go through something like this ever again, but at the same time, looking back today, I realise that out of the few options I could have had after that meeting with the conservationist, funnily enough it did not even cross my mind to contemplate the idea of turning back. Achieving enough objectivity in order to find a point of equilibrium in such a tense situation is, needless to say, difficult. Defining when a hazard is actually real, and when it is just a fabrication of the mind, in such a situation, it requires nerves of steel. At times, the line that separates intelligence from stupidity in an adventure like this becomes very delicate, but after passing several kilometers, analyzing objectively the situation, I was able to calm my head. After about 3 hours, I finally found a settlement of 10 huts in the middle of nowhere, and the human presence gave me some comfort.

I talked with some shepherds and confirmed the attacks on their animals, a real calamity for these people who have nothing more than that. After a few minutes, I decided to keep moving because it was too early to stop there. I was already more serene and the presence of the people had comforted me, even though they had confirmed the danger of the lions stalking the area. It all went fine until a handful of miles past the village, went behind me I heard a child come out of nowhere shouting hysterically:

- NOoooooooooooooo !!! Noooooooooooooooo !!! Noooooooooooooo !!! NOooooooooooooo !!!

I did not understand anything, I did not understand why he yelled at me like that, his screams made me deaf. He would run beside me and keep yelling at me:

-Noooooooo !!! Noooooooooo !!! do not go there !!!, do not go there !!!, you can not go there !!!

I was disturbed by this exacerbated reaction and tried to talk to him. I asked him why he was telling me this and he answered me in the few English words he knew:

- The lion, the lion !!!! It's going to kill you, it's going to kill you !!!!!!!!!! he shouted

 Arrrrggghhh !!!! This is the last thing I needed, THE LAST!! I began to stress badly with the bad auguries of this child who seems to have come out of the middle of nowhere to predict my imminent demise.

I said to him - "If the lion is going to eat me, why do you keep running after me in the same direction?"

and he said - "It's my mother's cow, it's there," he says, "I have to go get it."
 
Finally, I figured out that this child of about 7 years old, who was running barefoot by my side with great fear, was actually seeking my protection to go and look for the cow of his family because he knew that a lion had eaten their animals yesterday. He was more afraid than I was.

 I was determined to get to Bersieg, a village of about 30 houses, to sleep in a safe place that night. I had had enough during this day, but the road was full of stones and I kept riding across these steep crests, which made me slow down dramatically. I was only about 5 km away when I saw a pick-up ahead of me, flipped over in the middle of the road and completely destroyed. Behind it I saw two elderly people struggling. I pushed on the pedals as much as I could when I saw them raise their hands in the air. The British couple in their 65s or so were walking around, the man with the bleeding head was talking incoherences, they were in shock. When I asked them what had happened, all of a sudden I heard from below the vehicle, shouts of despair:

- get me out of here!! get me out of here !!! God please get me out of here! - and when I looked down I saw a pool of blood coming out of the purple head of another older woman I hadn't seen.

 In desperation, I threw aside the bike and tried to do something. Moving the truck was impossible, the doors were fully locked and crushed and the windows space too small. I unloaded my bicycle so that I could rush off to Bersieg for help but fortunately 2 km on, I passed a van with two people who were nurses at the Bersieg clinic. I stopped them and with we returned to the scene of the accident. The poor woman was still screaming, bathed in blood, turned upside down, trapped inside with the seat belt on. One of the nurses stayed there and the driver and me rushed to Bersieg to look for the police and some army personnel. We returned with a team of 10 people, none of whom had the least idea of what to do in the emergency. They tried in vain to turn the truck over but it was impossible. Their ineptitude disgusted me while the woman could not stop hopelessly asking for help. Suddenly it occurred to me to go to the other side and there I realised that through the door where the other two had come out, the woman could be carefully removed by cutting the seat belt. And so it was, that with the help of a few others, we slowly took her out and later took them all to the clinic from where an ambulance took them to an airstrip from where they could be evacuated by a small plane to Windhoek.

  After such a day, I was able to camp behind a nurse's house in a fenced-in garden. At least today, I wouldn't have to worry about the lions. I was quite nervous, exhausted and grimy, I had not been able to get any water to run through body for a week, and even in this town I could not have the gall to ask these people for the precious little water they have access to in this inhospitable region where they live.

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Encounters in the wild

 The next day I arrived at the epicenter of the most active area of wild animals, Palmwag, a crossroads of stones with some tin and wooden houses and a police checkpoint. It is the last point where I could stock up on food and water for a few days, the point that I was most worried about. Now, the most extreme stretch lied ahead of me: to reach Opuwo crossing the most remote parts of Kaokoland in the land of wild animals and home to the well-known Himba tribe.
I marched on the way to Purros and the landscape became simply dazzling, with vast expanses of ocher-colored rocky desert, absolute solitude, and lots of wildlife. Springboks were everywhere; huge groups of kudus, with their horns in the shape of a corkscrew, would stop at the sight of me; giraffes, zebras, desert elephants. The presence of these animals not only delighted me for their beauty but it also brought me peace of mind since being in a place full of fauna, the lions would have many other more delicious meals to deal with before having me for dinner.

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I was finally alone, pedaling in the middle of nowhere, my favorite place in the world. I left Palmwag with about 20 liters of water and more food; for the first time, I think my bike was near the 100 kg of weight, I never got to that much. Every kilometer in this either ocean of stones or sandpit forced me to get off the bicycle and sweat my life away pushing. It sank capriciously on the soft ground of this already disfigured road. However, I have never before believed that I would have enjoyed so much a wild experience like this one, where I needed to apply my greatest physical and mental endurance to get across it.

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From here, Nico, nobody can take you out but yourself, I kept thinking to myself. The days riding on these big sharp rocks felt endeless, the total absence of people exacerbated the solitude. I was advancing at the mercy of the animals stalking around me, oscillating between dazzlement and uncertainty in this incredible scenery of the world that is the far northwest corner of Namibia, something that could easily be called "the end of the world." I imagined myself as the insignificant little dot that I am, alone with my bicycle, seen from above in this vast rocky desert and I would get goosebumps out of excitement. It is during these moments, that I put the fears aside, all the concentration is set to arrive safely at destination absorbing every fraction of this experience, there is no time for fear, no time for doubt, only determination to keep on going.

The days were still rigorously blue, and for almost two months I had rarely seen clouds, I have forgotten what they are. Not even in Mongolia I have seen blue skies so immaculate like these. But the best always inevitably came in the evenings. Once I passed Palmwag, I was bound by my own safety, following the recommendation of those who know better, to keep a fire going all night. According to all of them, it was the only thing that could give me some sort of protection from the lions. That's why I finished the day by 4:00 p.m., in order to pitch my tent quickly and until the sun would go down I would gather piles of dry wood from the surroundings. Then I would light the first fire and continue piling wood next to the tent to be able to keep adding feeding wood to it throughout the night, setting an alarm to wake up every 2 hours or so. Here the wood is so dry that it burns in only a few minutes, so I needed a lot of it.

At dusk, before the waning moon came out, the sky was cluttered with millions of stars, and the absolute silence was only broken by the sound of the wood crackling in the fire. Aside of the spot of light that produced the fire, everything around me was in pitch-black darkness. Thus I would spend the lonely nights, enjoying a magic that I can only define as celestial, moments where my body and my soul are fused in perfect communion with the nature that surrounds me. Every night would repeat like this, until one night that would change it all and would turn to be a truly unforgettable one.

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Sitting on a stone around the fire next to the tent's door, I enjoyed the splendor of the night when a loud, guttural animal sound suddenly filled the void of this deep silence, sort of: "mmmmbbbbbbfffffffffffff" echoed in space, a mixture of a soft growl with a long yawn. A shock of electricity ran down my spine, the stimulus of adrenaline coming off like a cataract out of control through my veins, I was paralyzed, with the faintness of a heart throbbing like crazy inside my rib cage. It was excitement, it was emotion, it was fear, it was sheer terror, I could not control what I felt, I just knew I did not dare move. Suddenly, another sound reverberated in the distance this time to my right, followed by another one to my left, two behind me, and one ahead. A sepulchral silence space opened between those "mmmmbbbbbbfffffffffffff", a space in which my breathing was contained denying the frantic pumping of my heart. It was the mythical "call of the lions", that is how they communicate with one another at a distance. It was impossible for me to measure how far or how close they were to me, because everything was pitch-black, but they were around me and I thought they were 5 or 6. For several minutes they continued to "call" each other, until finally, when everything turned fully silent again, I added more wood to the fire and managed to shake the fear off my muscles so I could cautiously get inside my tent.

 As it is imaginable, it was incredibly difficult to fall asleep that night. I was hooked on all sorts of sensations and emotions. It was terrifying but it was also one the most incredible moments of my life, easily among the most insanely intense that I have ever experienced in so many years of traveling the world. Despite the fear, I think I would have wanted that beautiful "chanting" of the lions to continue for the rest of the night. It has certainly been a guttural melody that has been etched forever within me.

 The night finally turned into day once again, and from the lions that chanted next to my tent, I dawned again with visitors at my door. Two giraffes looked at me suspiciously as I unzipped the tent's door. They had that characteristic gesture of curiosity they make when they straighten up their necks and twist their heads. I was overjoyed, I smiled like a child, this experience was more incredible than I could have ever imagined, I could not stop looking at them and smiling. I wanted to approach them, but then they gently started to walk away in a graceful, leisurely pace.

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The final stretch

 I had thought of going all the way up to the legendary Van Zyl pass, but I wasn't sure I could carry and/or find enough water and I was starting to get very tired. I longed to shower, and after Purros, the muscles were already hurting from so much effort invested in both pedaling and pushing. So I decided to detour and take the Kaoko-Otavi road. Damn pebbles, balance was very difficult to achieve with the water bag fully loaded with 10 liters, tilting from side to side. At times I wanted to just get off and kick the stones out of frustration, but they were too many, it would have been a clearly useless effort to squander the energy I needed.

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Luckily I discovered that the ground to the sides of the road was actually solid. I had no way to find my way reliably since my GPS's compass has been broken for a long time now, so I decided to guide myself following the sun's direction and by looking at the top of two mountains that I sensed I had to go through. I went completely off-road for at least half a day, trying not to get lost but of course I got lost anyway, and after spending several hours between the bushes dodging the sharp thorns of the local plants, I was back in the Kaoko-Otavi.

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The last afternoon before arriving at Opuwo, I came across the first Himba settlement, but it seemed to have been abandoned. However, as I approached its characteristic igloo-like huts made of twigs and mud, I discovered that three teenage girls and a young man still lived there. I had not the slightest idea about what they were doing there, all three of them alone, how they sustained themselves or how they survived, and I only knew three words in Himba, so our communication was reduced to the wonders of sign language. They were friendly, curious, and funny, they laughed hysterically at me for no apparent reason and they looked at me with the same childish curiosity with which I looked at them. And with the very same strangeness with which I touched the strands of hair that they have carefully compressed for a lifetime with mud and ocher, they caressed the "softness" of mine, took my sunglasses and laughed non-stop. There I spent my last night before Opuwo camping.

When I finally hit the last kilometers of sealed road before Opuwo on the C43, I felt I was flying instead of pedaling. 950 km had gone by since I had left Windhoek and I think my average speed most of the way was around 7 km/h. As I stepped on the tarmac and I was able to cycle at 23 km/h I felt like Superman without a cape. But I was already starting to feel in my body the effects of such a rigorous stretch. The daily exposure to the harsh sun combined with the extremely dry weather had dissected my skin until it cracked like a leaf in autumn. I had such deep cuts on my heels that I could hardly stand on my feet due to the pain I felt. My lips would bleed when smiling as the slits across them enlarged while stretching the skin and the impending burn forced me to close my mouth again as quickly as possible. Of all of it, I think the worst thing was the nose, it hurt inside, it was tight. The boogers that form in such a dry climate are like stalactites that prick like needles in the nostrils. It is so imperative the need to remove them that it ends up hurting the thin membranes of the inside of the nose. But sometimes it only takes as little as 5 minutes to be full again, and it hurts so much that I can no longer stick my finger back in to clean it. 

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I finally arrived at the dusty town of Opuwo with a happiness and a sense of accomplishment that I have rarely experienced before, having cycled one of the hardest stretches I have ever faced in my life as a bicycle traveler. But at the same time, it provided me with moments of sublime grandeur. Moments that I was able to enjoy alone, without being disturbed by anyone else. Now it was time to leave the bicycle hhere and catch a mini van back to Windohoek, in search of a bit of social life, good rest, good food and to hear the grand final verdict: whether I have been granted the Angolan visa or not.